When Singapore returned to Phase 3 (Heightened Alert) and live theatre performances became an option again, much of the arts news was dominated by bigger and more well-established theatre companies making their return with blockbuster shows, even with reduced seating. But perhaps the ones that have gone unnoticed and are less prominent are the little guys, the independent theatre makers who also want their time in the spotlight, finding it in them to stage new works even during this difficult time.
More impressive is that these aren’t just repertory works, but premieres of new scripts from young playwrights, signalling that the youth of today have plenty to say in theatre. And one such playwright happens to be 23-year old Isaiah Christopher Lee, whose new play The Concubine makes its premiere this week, after facing delays over the Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) measures.
“Everything wound down when phase 2 kicked in, and we had to postpone or cancel the event altogether,” says director Adeeb Fazah. “There was a grieving period, because we were in the middle of rehearsals, and we were dropped by a venue because they were also unsure of what would happen. When things started up again, we had to go from zero to a hundred really fast and get things going.”
Co-written by Isaiah and Izzul Irfan, The Concubine is a 90-minute semi-autobiographical monodrama that sees Isaiah playing a young man fresh from a breakup, and revisit those he’s loved and lost. Along the way, he weaves in his story with concubines from literature, as he learns to come to terms with what he is given, and grow with every new challenge life throws at him.
Since the last time we watched Isaiah’s work, with his debut production The Old Woman and the Ox in 2018 (also directed by Adeeb), the young playwright has done some soul searching, spending the better part of the last two or so years honing his craft and taking time away from the main stage. “Over the last few years, I’ve done some theatre, like directing Dwayne Ng’s Single Mothers, and several Zoom shows,” says Isaiah. “I’ve mostly been busy with university, and the most major production I’ve been involved in recently was Reflections at Huayi 2021, where I was in charge of the script and art direction.”
“I think I had to take a step back from writing after The Old Woman and the Ox, and just recalibrate where I was as a writer. How do I find the balance between writing something that’s easy to produce, and something that really strikes a chord with me? What helped me was going into drama education, where my kids really gave me a new perspective when I was writing shows for students to perform, that gave me a new voice, and a new way of approaching topics.”– Isaiah Christopher Lee
The Concubine‘s first ever draft came out around 2 years ago, but it’s only been about a year that Isaiah has been seriously returning to it, and putting it through the rigour of one draft after another. “I struggled to write the show for a long time, mostly because coming into such close proximity with something so personal can be quite uncomfortable and unnerving,” says Isaiah. “Izzul came about because we had a conversation, and I told him my story, it resonated with him. It’s a back and forth process where we play with the possibilities, and he had a big part in some of the most brilliant, dramatic parts of the script.
Having worked together with Adeeb before on The Old Woman and the Ox, it was a natural choice to reunite with him to direct The Concubine as well. Considering his slew of collaborations in recent years, and his willingness to take on new projects, it was a production that Adeeb gladly took on. “At this stage of my career, I’m taking a chance on my craft and expanding my breadth of experience, from these small circles I’ve created,” says Adeeb. “I enjoy exploring working with different people and styles, especially with collaborative, devised pieces, like Broken Turns earlier this year. Part of it has to do with how I’m responding to last year’s pandemic situation, where I’m figuring out how I as an artist find new approaches to creating my work.”
“I get rejuvenated when trying new things, meeting different people and just finding that headspace. When we did The Singapore Trilogy, it was crazy, but I thought it was important to keep forging on and keep going. Sure, it was hard to make ends meet at times, but in my Director’s Message, I was making it clear what the scene is going through: we find a way, with different avenues for revenue, and keep going, with or without support.”– Director Adeeb Fazah
Regarding the show itself, Isaiah describes it as being ‘semi-autobiographical’ as it is in part, about his life experience in a past relationship, and even wonders midway through the play how much of what he says is even being honest with himself. “I think Singapore does understand and is familiar with the idea of a concubine,” says Isaiah. “It’s about being the third person in the relationship, and you always feel like you’re in this powerless situation, stuck at an impasse, and the show is about how the main character is navigating that relationship, and his own relationship with himself.”
“I used to think I need to put shows out there that will resonate with others, whether to shock or educate or entertain, but I don’t want to just write things that people want to hear,” he adds. “I stopped thinking about what people expect from youth theatre, because those are terms that will end up boxing me in. As long as people find something in my work they can resonate with, that’s enough encouragement that I’m doing something right.”
And regarding his ability to cope with being both playwright and actor? Isaiah mentions that he keeps a clear tab on his various roles, choosing to compartmentalise them to juggle it all. “As a writer and actor, I give myself over to the performance and separate the two. I don’t go into the performance with a specific intent or vision, because I let Adeeb lead from his perspective,” says Isaiah, who is simultaneously also directing another show.
On the state of youth and theatre today, Adeeb feels that there is always room for improvement, and wonders if there’s space to accommodate these rising theatre makers. “There are so many barriers to entry in this industry, with a huge inequality between big players operating on another level versus the smaller players scrambling for scraps for the taking,” he says.
“Independently putting up work is already a huge burden. We are trained to create art, but how then do we manage and produce it? Maybe we can play on our strength in numbers, like what we did with Strike! Festival.”
“While we do get support from the National Arts Council, the burden is always still on us to ensure audience members buy tickets,” he adds, thinking of how past productions had experimented with ticket bundles to encourage sales. “It’s a numbers game, and unfortunately, it’s a little like betting, as we need to raise enough funds or we will feel the pinch. We’re looking at numbers almost every day, from ticket sales to how we’re hiring. Our core team is so small, and we’re down to maybe just 4 people working on this.”
Adeeb mentions about how we lack a theatre going culture in general, something that just isn’t being promoted, even by schools. “It’s not something that many families take their kids to when they’re young, and I also wonder if schools pay attention to arts education, or including theatre-going in their literature programme,” he says. “Watching theatre like The Concubine, it’s a gentle nudge for people to find some way of coping and find clarity for themselves and get recharged, to find something and pick themselves up when it’s too difficult, and show them these different ideas and viewpoints.”
“I’m afraid that there’ll be a whole generation of students with much less exposure and experience of the arts. And when they have their own money to spend, when they want to go out with friends, theatre just isn’t the first thing that occurs to them. How then do we find them and capture their attention?”– Adeeb Fazah
Ultimately, all Isaiah wants to do is to tell a story, his story, and hope that the issues strike a chord with audiences. “I think the issues that arise in The Concubine have always been urgent, but I wanted to bring light to the themes of trauma and abuse, especially subtle ways it manifests, like gaslighting,” he says. “It’s not new, but I think it’s the right time to talk about it, especially with the lockdown where such issues might surface more.”
“I want audiences to realise they are who they are today because of all the baggage they carry, all the relationships they’ve had, and to realise no one has the answers. To realise we are worthy of love and that we do not need to be chained by our past.”
The Concubine plays from 14th to 18th July 2021 at the Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets available here